Baltimore County residents seek ban on developer campaign donations

Baltimore Co. residents went to Annapolis Friday to make their case for a ban on developer campaign cash.

Residents from around Baltimore County implored state lawmakers Friday to ban developers from making campaign contributions to the county executive and members of the County Council.

Representing Towson, Edgemere, Bowleys Quarters, Pikesville, and White Marsh, the residents told stories of how they feel their concerns about proposed developments have been ignored by county elected officials.

"Our rights and voices are not being registered in Baltimore County," said Russell Donnelly, who is active on development and environmental issues in the southeast part of the county.

A bill proposed by Sen. Jim Brochin a Towson Democrat, would apply to developers and their "agents," including attorneys, engineers, consultants and architects, as well as the immediate family members of developers and their agents. Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Dundalk Republican, is cosponsoring the bill.

Anyone who applies for certain development or zoning approvals would not be allowed to make campaign donations while their application is pending, and they'd have to sign a document saying that they hadn't made donations in the prior three years.

The bill, which is modeled after a similar law in Prince George's County, covers a wide range of applications and approvals including zoning changes, special exception and variance requests, site plan approvals and planned unit developments. It would go into effect in 2019. The next election for county offices is in 2018.

Development is a top issue in growing Baltimore County, and members of the County Council hold unusually strong power over zoning and development decisions. They conduct a comprehensive review of zoning changes every four years, which is much more frequently than other counties.

Council members also can introduce planned-unit developments, which afford developers significant leeway from zoning rules in exchange for a community benefit, which is often a donation to a community project.

Proponents of Brochin's bill say that it will level the playing field — they feel developers can effectively buy access to county officials by virtue of their campaign donations. Brochin has described a "pay-to-play" system in the county.

Heather Patti, president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association, said she feels that developers' voices are heard more than residents' voices. She spent more than a year fighting a proposed outlet mall in White Marsh.

"The status quo right now is so unethical," she said.

Joe LaBella, president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association, said the current system is "ripe for conflicts of interest."

The bill is also supported by Common Cause Maryland.

One person testified against the bill: Josh Greenfeld of the Maryland Building Industry Association.

He said there's no proof that developers have undue influence on county officials, and he questioned whether the bill is constitutionally valid because it infringes on free speech.

Representatives for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz attended the hearing before the Baltimore County Senate delegation, but did not testify. Kamenetz, a Democrat, is term-limited as county executive and considering a run for governor.

A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled. The bill must win approval from Baltimore County's senators as well as the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to advance.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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